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The Battle of Alzheimer’s- What lies ahead

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Alzheimer’s disease (AD) probably the last frontier of man’s battle with diseases, is a progressive brain disorder that damages and eventually destroys our brain cells leading to memory loss and a gradual decline in other brain functions. The Alzheimer’s Association states that every 71 seconds someone in the US develops Alzheimer’s and by 2050 it’ll be every 33 seconds. By 2050 nearly million people will be affected by the disease that will create an economic burden running to a trillion dollars. Clearly, the world stands amidst an epidemic, and this is not new news.

A Very Brief History of AD

Dr. Alois Alzheimer first described the disease in 1906 based on his observation of a patient at the Frankfurt Asylum whose behavioral symptoms and loss of short term memory became his obsession for the next several years. By 1910 Emil Kraepelin a German psychiatrist named the disease as Alzheimer’s disease in the eight edition of his book called Psychiatrie. It took another 60 years for the US Congress to establish the National Institute of Aging (NIA) as a primary federal agency to fund the research on the disease. The year 1983 saw the month of November being designated as a national Alzheimer’s Disease month. By 1984 beta-amyloid (Abeta) – a prime suspect in triggering the disease was identified by George Glenner and Caine Wong eventually leading to the beta-amyloid hypothesis –the basis of several recent clinical trials. Tau-the microtubule-associated protein was identified in 1986. The year 1987 saw two breakthroughs, 1. The identification of the first gene on chromosome 21 that codes for the amyloid precursor protein (APP). 2. The clinical trial of tacrine, the first drug that targeted the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s Association, NIA, and Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical company (Pfizer) collaborated to run the trial. Since then there have been numerous clinical trials, and almost every one of them has failed to find the cure for the disease.

Next Generation Drugs of AD

Next Generation Drugs that are being tested now are mostly based on the beta-amyloid hypothesis. The fundamental reasoning behind the hypothesis is based on the gene mutations responsible for the synthesis of beta-amyloid that have been associated with early, onset, familial AD. The 42-mer peptide derived from the Amyloid precursor protein (APP), a protein thought to be involved in synapse formation, and neuronal cell adhesion is responsible for brain amyloid plaques-the pathological hallmarks of the AD. Therefore, the strategies to defeat the disease are now based on immunotherapy (monoclonal antibodies, therapeutic vaccines), secretase (enzymes that can cleave APP) inhibitors and aggregation inhibitors.

The second camp of believers in the war against the AD, however, believes that the neurofibrillary tangles composed of an abnormally high phosphorylated microtubule-associated protein called tau are a better target to tackle the disease. Among the companies that have significantly invested in this approach are Merck, Biogen, and Roche.

The Monoclonal Antibody Trials

Both approaches have met with significant setbacks and failures. The latest to fail is Lilly’s Solanezumab. The result from the EXPEDITION3 trial of Solanezumab, a humanized monoclonal antibody that has been designed to clear soluble Abeta has just been published in the New England Journal of Medicine a week ago. Sadly, the trial failed to replicate the findings from an earlier trial where secondary analyses had shown a modest effect in slowing the cognitive decline. The current trial was a double-blind placebo control that involved patients with mild dementia due to AD (Mini-Mental State Examination of 20-26). The results of the primary outcome measure (ADAS-cog14) showed no significant difference between the treated and the untreated (placebo group) in reducing the cognitive decline in the patients.

The study hinted that the administered dose of Solanezumab might not have been sufficient to reduce the deposited cerebral amyloid, neuronal atrophy or other associated pathology of the disease. The drug penetration in the CNS ranged from 0.1% to 0.3% of the plasma level, that may be too low to produce a clinically meaningful effect. Secondly, even though the drug cleared more than 90% of the free plasma Abeta, the florbetapir PET imaging data suggested that the antibody failed to reduce the fibrillar amyloid burden in the patients. Though the study puts a yet another dent in the amyloid hypothesis, it pins our hope on the two ongoing Phase III trials with Biogen’s Aducanumab known as ENGAGE and EMERGE for reasons that are specified below.

Biogen’s study (A 2016 double-blind placebo-controlled phase Ib PRIME study that was reported in Nature on Sep 2016) is based on a monoclonal antibody that recognizes the pathological Abeta aggregates involving patients with mild dementia. Unlike Solanezumab, the penetration of Aducanumab through the blood-brain barrier was reported to be 1.3% (nearly tenfold more). The drug based on the florbetapir PET imaging test showed a reduction in the Abeta plaques in both dose and time-dependent manner. Clinical assessment of the study even though exploratory (that is the study was not powered to detect clinical change) showed a dose-dependent slowing of clinical progression at one year. On Nov 2017 Biogen released their result from their long-term extension of the ongoing Phase Ib study of the Aducanumab that showed a continued reduction of the amyloid plaque and suggested benefit on the clinical decline for the patients in Phase Ib. Analysts have vetted that Biogen’s Aducanumab is perhaps the best anti-amyloid antibody currently available with more than 50% chance of success. Only time will tell whether Aducanumab will be able to achieve the efficacy required to bring a possible drug to the market. For now, the world has to wait.

The Road Ahead

However, the pursuit to find a new and diverse target continues and that itself is hope for millions of families globally. The US federal Government’s effort through National Institute of Health (NIH) has been persistent in funding the disease area, and the share of funding has increased in several folds compared to other disease areas in recent years. The funding spree has created a tsunami of information about the disease process both macroscopically and at a molecular level. Just a search on “Alzheimer’s Disease” at the clinical trial.gov shows more than 200 active trials that are currently running. The target repertoire includes Abeta to cholinergic neurons to kinases to lipid and glucose metabolism to growth factors to protein homeostasis to the biology of mitochondria, etc. At par with oncology, AD therapy is seeing a trend towards precision medicine, mostly because of our better understanding of the genes and genetic pathways involved in the disease process today.

The war against neurodegeneration has recently seen an encouragement from venture funding too (This speaks a lot about the health our biotech venture ecosystem). LifesciVc remarked a 40% increase in the central nervous system (CNS) venture funding over the last 5 years. There have been several venture-backed neuro focused startups that have promising pipelines. The star among them is, of course, Denali which closed a 1.2 billion dollar valuation last year. Some of the other startups that are worth looking forward to are Cortexyme, Cerevance, Alzheon, Voyager, Yumanity to name a few.

Conclusion

Even though the future of drug discovery in the AD seems uncertain but so was the journey to the moon. I think tomorrow will be exciting and someone from this generation will write how through collective efforts, the battle of Alzheimer’s was won in the coming decades. I sincerely wish I can read that book in my lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Ananda Ghosh

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Acknowledgement: The blog resulted from a discussion with Sadhana Chitale, PhD, Director, Life Sciences, NYU Technology Ventures and Partnerships over an article on Alzheimer’s research.

Editor: Sadhana Chitale, PhD

Image: The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, 1931

Obsession & Opinions Cartoons: Manasi Pethe, Ph.D.  San Diego

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

References

  1. https://www.alz.org/we_can_help_we_can_help.asp
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/537036a?WT.feed_name=subjects_neuroscience
  3. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature19323
  4. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1705971?query=featured_home
  5. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1705971?query=featured_home
  6. https://lifescivc.com/2017/09/venturing-boldly-neuroscience/
  7. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20171102005743/en/Biogen-Presents-New-Data-Long-Term-Extension-Phase

2018-The year of glass half full

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I am not a TIME fan in any sense. However, the last issue of TIME caught my attention. The cover story was named “The Optimist,” edited by Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Malala Yousafzai and other prominent leaders of the world. Their editorial discussed the positive changes the world is seeing despite all the negativity which surround us today.

The issue begins with a cover story of six children in Ethiopia who just celebrated their fifth birthday when compared to 30 years ago when 1 in 5 children did not survive to see this world. Malala Yousafzai narrated how Malala fund is helping to recruit female teachers in Afghanistan to work in rural schools. How in Nigeria, it helps run mentorship club to help girl resist family pressure to drop out from schools or early marriage. In Lebanon, they are developing e-learning programs to teach STEM skills to Syrian refugee girls. Budd Haeberlein from Biogen showed her optimism about finding a cure for Alzheimer’s in the near future. Bill Gates talked about his foundation’s effort to bring the death rate from 12 million a year in the 1990s to 5 million a year in 2017, and the goal is to bring this to half by 2030. If you want to help several such initiatives please go ahead and donate to UNICEF.

In the same issue, there is a column dedicated to Dr. Mathew Varghese of Delhi’s St. Stephens Hospital near Tis Hazari. Dr. Varghese, an orthopedic surgeon by training, has spent a significant part of his career going from house to house in Northern India trying to study the victims of the Polio in their social context. India has practically eradicated Polio with the number of cases reported being zero since 2011. An article in Guardian dedicated to Dr. Varghese describes him as “India’s polio pioneer works to put himself out of a job”. Dr. Varghese now runs an organization in nearly 29 states which teach medical students to understand the social context of the patients concerning the disease.

In CSG too, we got to know the incredible story of Govinda Upadhyay of LED Safari,
thanks to #CSGInsta, who dropped out of his Ph.D. to work on his startup to solve an unmet need in India-electricity. Washington Post revealed that 1.3 billion people in India remain without power. The government relies on fossil fuel to meet the energy demand which means a nearly three-fold increase in the greenhouse emission by 2030. What Upadhyay realized was that the problem was not with the limited resources but the knowledge or training to repair electrical equipment in this part of the world. He came up with a solar kit to teach kids how to use solar energy to create electricity using basic training modules. He has taken his ideas now to other African countries like Tanzania and Kenya where children can learn about solar energy and technology. The reason I liked Upadhyay’s story was it somehow is in tune with CSG’s core mission albeit looking at a different problem. We believe there are so many of us who have an inherent talent to make a mark in the world or contribute positively in their unique way and what prevents many from reaching that stage is “awareness and education”. It’s not the formal education it is more than that. If we empower this massive chunk of human resource who are disillusioned about how their education and training fits in the rapidly evolving job market, we can create several such leaders as Upadhyay (at least that is our hope).

In an article from the recently published December issue of New Yorker, Richard Haas, an American diplomat was quoted, referring to the fact that the world is entering an era without obvious leadership. However, to me, I think the new world is exploding with leaders who have been inspired to solve some of the most challenging questions of our times, and we don’t necessarily have to wait for political leaders to take in charge of our fate. As long as there are men and women who are aware of the problems that surround us and finds out a way to solve them howsoever small the problem may be and howsoever small a community the solution helps, our future in this planet looks bright.

PS: If you know people who are making small impacts in the world, let us know their story. Write to me at ananda1979@gmail.com

References:
http://time.com/5086870/bill-gates-guest-editor-time/

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/jun/21/india-polio-pioneer

https://goo.gl/7wRDi2 (Washington Post)

Photograph Courtesy:

(Wikimedia Commons) https://goo.gl/WYWrBp

Children at a vaccinations clinic near Sululta, Ethiopia, May 2012

Edited by : Mahamaya Bhattacharyya

Attribution: Yasmin Abubeker/DFID

Obsession & Opinions Cover Image: Manasi Pethe, Ph.D.  San Diego

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

In the land of opportunities, an immigrant’s perspective

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The ruckus and ballyhoo instigated by controversial immigration laws under the new administration has had me reflecting on my own purpose behind coming to the U.S. I belong to the 37.6% of Indians who have lived in the U.S for ten years or less. In fact, it’s been less than a year since I moved here. What was it that brought me halfway across the world, in a cramped 22-hour flight, far away from my loving family and the country, to which my heart and soul belong? What did I seek and what did I find?

To Indians, America is the land of opportunities. For most, it is the opportunity to make money. But thanks to my hard-working parents, I grew up with enough financial comfort to not know the pinch of poverty. Money wasn’t the bait that lured me here. I had just graduated with a PhD in Microbiology from one of the best institutes in India and experienced the broad realm of research. But to improve and innovate, I had to be at the cutting-edge of research, at the source of creativity, where research is a combination of thoughtful experimentation and successful collaboration. As Steve Jobs said “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”. I got my lucky break when one of the professors at Stanford University invited me to join his lab. Where better than that to be at the frontlines of research!

What I found when I arrived was a university which harnessed all the power of technology to make research life easier and quicker. Naturally, it also led me to think about how I could improve science back home. The piles of paperwork, the rigmarole of acquiring signatures from every person at every level of the administrative hierarchy, the constant lingering outside admin offices to politely badger them to process your order, all of which greatly hampered research in India could be circumvented by a few clicks on the computer. Without this unnecessary time-sink, researchers would be able to focus their entire energy on developing a good research question. All of this however, was what I had expected to find in the U.S.

What I didn’t expect was the positive influence that the place had on me both as a scientist and as an individual. The research environment here thrives on cooperation and collaboration, without any ulterior motives. The healthy competitive spirit of the place renewed my dwindling faith in the cooperative and candid nature of the scientific community. At a personal level, the emphasis on work-life balance here has given me enough time to think about my long-term goals. I could pause in my frenzy to publish in a high impact journal and explore fields outside academia that I am interested in. Be it science writing, data science or modern statistics, there are courses, seminars and workshops you can attend to hone your skills. There are talented career counselors and active alumni networks who are eager to help you set and realize your goals. It is a haven of resources, waiting to be utilized. These resources and respect for researchers as individuals is what I feel is lacking back in India.

The resources and innovations do come with a price tag. The seed of science research can bear fruit only when watered by money. Government funding for science research in India is around 8 billion, uncomparable to the 155 billion invested by the U.S federal government and the huge sums contributed by philanthropic billionaires of the country. As researchers, we have to continue to communicate the importance and necessity of investing in basic and applied research to the government. At the same time, introducing a technology-driven administration in universities will ensure proper allocation and channelization of funds, without being caught in the web of corruption.

Indian science has seen many great scientists in the past. Our space research is among the best in the world, as is evident from the whopping success of the Mars mission. But it is important to not stagnate now. It is important to change with time. If I could change one thing about my PhD life, I would choose to care a little less about science and a little more about the myriad of things life has to offer. And if I could change one thing about my institute, I would choose investment in technology over historical bureaucracy. We need to embrace technology, be more forthcoming and make science more enjoyable. Healthier work environments will mean happier researchers and better research. I do realize that I also have a responsibility towards making this happen. Writing about it is hopefully my first step.

(http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/how-science-fares-us-budget-deal, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/02/winners-and-losers-india-s-science-budget).

Featured Image: Pixabay

About the author:

Shwetha Shivaprasad is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University. She is a virologist by training and loves to learn something new everyday, expanding her knowledge base and skill set. She is currently in a phase of career exploration and trying her hand at science writing and reviewing. But nevertheless, she is irreversibly drawn towards the charm of a career in academia.

Editors:

Sushama Sivakumar is a postdoctoral student in the lab of Dr. Hongtao Yu at UT Southwestern Medical center, TX, USA. She is interested in studying the regulatory mechanisms that control proper chromosome segregation during mammalian cell mitosis.

Roopsha Sengupta is establishing herself as a freelance editor. She did her PhD in the Institute of Molecular Pathology, Vienna and postdoctoral research at the University of Cambridge UK, specializing in the field of Epigenetics. She loves words, science and kids (not necessarily in that order!).

Autistic individuals less startled by the unexpected

in That Makes Sense by

Autism, originating from the Greek word ‘autos’ meaning self was coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler to describe a subset of schizophrenic patients who were particularly self-absorbed and socially withdrawn. Currently, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), refers to a neurodevelopmental condition with core symptoms of social disinterest, communication deficits, and overly-focused or repetitive behavior. People with ASD are intolerant to change and crave routineness. In this context, it is interesting to note that adults with ASD are less surprised by the unexpected!

 

 

Expectations and beliefs pretty much drive the way we function and respond to the world.

Any kind of violation in our belief systems normally throws us off guard, and a frequent violation would force us to rethink and amend our expectations. For example, you enter your room and notice scribbles all over the walls. Your normal reaction would probably be that of surprise, but if you have kids around, you update your expectations accordingly. In ASD adults, this whole update mechanism appears to be compromised. Through a battery of tests and computational modeling, a recent study published in Nature Neuroscience showed that ASD individuals overestimate the volatility of their sensory environments. They have an impaired ability to learn from changes and subsequently build/ update expectations. The lesser the degree of surprise to sudden changes, the higher is the disorder’s severity. Behavior, in ASD cases, is driven more by senses than prior expectations or beliefs – something that normal individuals would exhibit only in unstable situations. In other words, autistic individuals act as they view and are less guided by higher order cognitive or social processes like learning and building stable expectations. This could also explain their predisposition to sensory overload and enhanced perceptual functioning.

One might think that being less susceptible to expectations and beliefs is great in a dynamic, ever-evolving world. On the contrary, the inability to build a stable belief system could be a problem – one of them being impaired viewing and interacting with others, a key ASD trait. Interestingly, the study revealed a connection between communication difficulties and building visual expectations as well; further research is necessary to understand this relationship better. Thus, this study puts quite a few points about ASD in perspective as represented by the diagram below.

Reference:

  1. Rebecca P Lawson, Christoph Mathys, Geraint Rees. Adults with autism overestimate the volatility of the sensory environmentNature Neuroscience, 2017; DOI: 1038/nn.4615
  2. http://www.autism.org.uk/sensory
  3. Mukerji Cora, Mottron Laurent, McPartland James C. Enhanced Perceptual Functioning. Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2013

Featured image: Youtube

 

About the author:

 Saikata Sengupta is currently pursuing her Ph.D. from Department of Neurology at Friedrich Schiller University, Germany. You can follow her on Linkedin or Twitter

Editors: Sushama Sivakumar, pHD

Manoja Eswara, Ph.D.

Sushama Sivakumar did her Ph.D. from University of Oklahoma Health Sci. Ctr., USA and is currently doing her postdoctoral research work at UT Southwestern medical center, USA.

Manoja Eswara did her Ph. D. from University of Guelph, Canada and is currently doing her postdoctoral fellowship in Cancer Epigenetics at Lunenfeld Tanenbaum Research Institute, Toronto, Canada.

Be it man or machine — a powerful memory impairs decisions

in ClubSciWri/That Makes Sense by

Are you the kind that remembers the core of a past event, but forgets the details? Well, research indicates that you might just be better at decision-making and adapting to the ever-changing, noisy environment. Most of us now acknowledge that it is as important to forget as it is to remember. And by forgetting, I do not mean wiping out unpleasant events (negative experiences propel better decision-making, we know that). It is storing the exquisite details or obsolete information that is a bother.  Why? Picture this. Erin and Matsya are being taught to identify cubes. Each of them has a Rubik’s cube in hand and makes a mental note of the object. The Rubik’s cube is replaced with 3 objects — a dice, a sugar cube, and a multicolored ball, each of a different size. While Erin had kept in mind the Rubik’s cube color, pattern, shape, and size, Matsya only managed to recollect its shape. Simply by storing and applying the gist of the learning, Matsya could quickly predict the dice and sugar block as cubes (i.e generalize), whereas storing too many details impeded Erin’s ability to swiftly choose the cubes. In a different scenario, Matsya’s favorite ice cream shop in her neighborhood shifts to an adjacent locality. Ability of her brain to delete the old location and update the new one can avoid conflict between the old and new and ease her in finding the place. These two scenarios reflect the importance of having a right mix of memory retention and loss for optimal decision-making. Thus, the potential of memory doesn’t lie in accurate, long-term retention of information but rather in guiding sensible decisions and promoting a flexible/adaptable behavior.

The importance of memory transience has also been highlighted in machine learning (ML), an artificial intelligence approach, wherein machines are trained to learn from provided data and expected to self-improve their performance using the “learning”. Regularization, an ML process that is brain’s equivalent to ‘storing and applying the gist of the learning’, shows that the lesser the parameters used for modeling, higher is the model’s ability to correctly predict the outcomes of new data. On the other hand, overly accurate model systems that have too many fed-in parameters are lower in applicability as they cannot generalize over different data sets.  Apart from regularization, computational models can also employ deletion of outdated data for more robust functioning. So, it looks like be it man or machine, remembering and forgetting are important.

But, what about the brain? What exactly is happening inside it when we are holding on to or letting go of memories? Can we influence what we retain or lose? Let’s take a quick look. The human brain is home to around 80-90 billion neurons — the smallest structural and functional electrically excitable units — that talk to each other using electrical and/or chemical signals. This “talking to each other” results in the formation of connections called “synapses”. Longer the talk between two neurons, stronger is their synapse (so much like human bonding, nay?). The birth, change, or death of these synapses is the basis for a lot of functions, one among them being storage and deletion of memories. Studies show that a memory persists principally because of excessive bonding between specific neurons that joined hands together to create the memory in the first place. Breaking or weakening of these bonds would aid in forgetting and/or learning. In reality, our brains are subject to regular remodeling from continuous neural activity and integration of new neurons. Moreover, environmental factors heavily influence our mnemonic abilities. For example, psychological stress affects an individual’s ability to store or retrieve memories, while activities like exercise are known to improve memory.

So, with memory’s neurobiological and computational perspectives in place, here’s the take home message: in a noisy, constantly changing world of today, optimal memory impermanence could be an investment in the choicest memory-guided planning for the future.

Reference:

Richards, B. A., & Frankland, P. W. (2017). The Persistence and Transience of Memory. Neuron, 94(6), 1071–1084.


About Saikata:

Saikata Sengupta is currently pursuing her Ph.D. from Department of Neurology at Friedrich Schiller University, Germany. You can follow her on Linkedin or Twitter.

 

 

 

Illustrator: Vinita Bharat, PhD of Fuzzy Synapse

Editors: Manoja Eswara, PhD and Paurvi Shinde, PhD

Manoja Eswara obtained her PhD from the University of Guelph, Canada and is currently pursuing her postdoctoral fellowship in Cancer Epigenetics at Lunenfeld Tanenbaum Research Institute, Toronto, Canada.

Paurvi Shinde did her PhD in Biomedical Sciences (Immunology) from the University of Connecticut Health and is currently a postDoc at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle. Apart from science, she’s a trained classical dancer and loves outdoor and hikes.

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

 This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Why do we follow norms?

in That Makes Sense by

Editor’s Note: “Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.” ― Stanley Milgram

We are currently living in a world which is dynamic and runs like a multi-tiered puppetry. Our every action is governed by a set of rules and regulations. We being a part of this society, view ourselves as just instruments full filling another person’s command. But aren’t we people with awareness and perception? Why don’t we question authority? What is enslaving million of people around the globe? Are the free thinking scientist and creatives falling victims of such norms?

P Surat Saravanan’s article will help you to take a moment to think about rules, how they originated, what is so compelling about these norms? She believes studying and analyzing several models can contribute to predicting human behavior and decision-making process. – Rituparna Chakrabarti

 

It is 2nd of July 2014. Yoshuki Sasai, a Japanese stem-cell researcher at RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology has just published a letter expressing his remorse. He had published two breakthrough articles in Nature, a top scientific journal, showing a simple method of converting any somatic cell into a stem cell. However, several allegations soon emerged; RIKEN initiated an investigation and found Sasai guilty of scientific misconduct and fabrication.

Moving on…. 17th January 2016, the day Rohith Vemula, a Dalit committed suicide. His letter states, “My birth is a fatal accident…The value of man was reduced to his immediate identity…”. The country is raging with physical and intellectual caste battles on the roads and in coffee shops.

Now it’s 22nd May 2017, Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old suicide bomber has just detonated a shrapnel-loaded homemade bomb at the exit of Manchester Arena, Manchester. As the smoke, debris, and shrapnel spread, traumatised parents and kids watch in shock, each rushing to reach the exit.

We are still in 2017. Maybe, even yesterday or today for that matter. “Argh! He burped again! Why do you have to do that? Could you please accept that it’s rude to do that?” Rose exclaimed, tired of her brother’s annoying habit she had been trying to curb for years now.

What’s the common thread between these cases? Connecting them might appear like solving a graphic jigsaw puzzle session in dark, but there is a common link – the baggage of norms. Our social behavior emerges because of several intertwined factors: what are the efforts required for a task (cost) and what are the involved material benefits, instincts, socio-cultural and religious norms set per the society. Norms are agreed upon rules and set of expectations that we are supposed to follow and presume others to reciprocate within a situation.

We might behave in a restricted manner, cherry picking those we interact with and letting them transcend our inner circles; often biased by their caste, race and gender identity. Sometimes these norms push towards extremism, where one is even ready to give up their lives for the religion/ideals. Other times, towards not-so-extreme like controlling our burps in public. Some of the ideas of how people respond to social conformity were tested in the famous experiments by Stanley Milgram and Solomon Asch. The experiments showed how an individual opinion or behavior could be completely molded by the opinion of people around. Milgram’s studies can now be enjoyed in the movie Experimenter. Scientists are also confronted with norms referred to as the ‘Mertonian Norms’. One of the four Mertonian norms is ‘disinterestedness’, which specifies that scientists should act only for the progress of science and not personal gain. This norm is often violated when a scientist misinforms or fabricates evidence to publish their work, like in our first example.

 

 

Norms – society’s ‘invisible hand’

“Ravi regretted his decision as soon as he put the spoon in his mouth. It tasted like heaven, but the guilt weighed heavy on his heart and mind. He had always watched his friends from the sidelines eating seekh kebabs every Wednesday at the corner shop. He berated himself for his fickle mind and went back to his aloo-gobi. His family had been vegetarians since time immemorial. His parents, his grandparents, his great-grandparents…we could go on for a while. That night before sleep, he forced the thoughts of a roasted golden chicken out of his mind and instead tried to think about potatoes!”

One of the features of internalising a norm is that it becomes an end in itself rather than a tool to achieve your goals. Violating them can be psychologically painful. Although Ravi has no particular empathy towards plants or animals, he still avoids eating non-vegetarian food as it is emotionally painful for him to indulge in it after years of abstinence.

Following norms is associated with two main protagonists: (i) the norm abiders, those who may go to any lengths to abide by the norm, even at a personal expense (an extreme example is suicide bombers). They resort to punishing (ii) the norm violators (as seen during caste based honor killings). So, with its exacting personal cost, how did norms evolve in a society that primarily believes in ‘rational egoism’ (an action is rational only if it maximises self-interest)?

Two researchers from the University of Tennessee and University of California, Davis set out to answer this question1.

 

The experiment

Sergey Gavrilets and Peter J. Richerson simulated groups with a constant population size. The individuals in the group could participate in collective activities that require efforts and thus, a cost. However, the benefits of cooperative activities were also shared equally among the members. Both cost and punishment were incorporated as numeric variables which could equal 0 or 1. They looked at two kinds of collective activities: ‘us vs. nature’, where groups had to defend, hunt and breed cooperatively. Second, ‘us vs. them’, which includes inter-group conflicts over territory, mating partners and trade routes. The individuals in the simulation can also punish the free-riders – members who reap the benefits without contributing to efforts. However, punishing the free-riders also involves a cost for the other members as it requires constant monitoring. At the end of each simulation, the survival of the groups is proportional to their success in collective actions. Also, the survival and reproduction of the individuals in the groups are proportional to the accumulated material payoffs.

They extended this model to understand norm internalisation. They assumed that individuals live in a pro-social environment where they learn from their parents, friends and peers to contribute to collective actions and punish the free-riders. However, these decisions can be modified by how much they have internalised the norm and what are the material benefits. They treated norm internalisation (Ƞ) as a continuous trait ranging from 0 to 1 (Ƞ=1 represented under-socialized individuals who did not care about the norm, while Ƞ=1 represented over-socialized individuals who do not care about the material payoffs but the norms). The authors found that promoting costly punishment led to more efficient norm internalisation, than the allure of benefits of participation. Thus, they speculate that society and groups which impose disapproval or punishment on the norm violators rather than promote the benefits of cooperative participation will have stronger norm internalisation. They also found that stronger norm internalisation led to increased cooperation and monitoring or punishing the free-riders in both ‘us vs. nature’ and ‘us vs. them’ activities.

Although increasing norm internalisation promoted collective activities, the material benefits and biological fitness may vary. In case of the ‘us vs them’ paradigm, increased norm internalisation may decrease biological fitness. This may be due to ‘rent dissipation’ (resources pooled by individuals are much more than the benefits of cooperation). For example, ‘rent dissipation’ can become very large in cases of inter-group conflicts, such as wars or feuds which have a high death rate.

 

Evolutionary origins

Next, we try to understand how did such a behavior evolve.

When human beings evolved to perform several kinds of intra- and inter-group activities, including hunting, mating, territory acquisition and/or trade route conflicts, an individual in a group could either make a decision after processing the costs and benefits associated with each behavior, or it could “copy the most successful” in the group2,3. Choosing the second option reduced the mental calculation for cost-benefit evaluation for each task, costs to acquire information and processing errors. Thus, in a variable environment following previously set rules might help in making a faster decision. Kids, who have error-prone information processing and lack the information to make the cost-benefit analysis, start following norms as early as 2–3 years. For them, this may provide a way to adapt to their niche and provide protection from the social hazards. Kids initially follow norms as a form of imitating their parent’s reactions to different situations. Studies have found that 3-year-olds not only imitate their parents in following the norms but also start enforcing it on others4.

Following norms may yet have another advantage. Till around 7000 AD, human beings lived in isolated colonies and then they started agriculture. This led to bigger societies of non-kin (individuals not related to each other) living together. These populations had to ensure that people live, cooperate and share in a society unrelated to each other. This was probably when following norms stepped in. Norms helped in synchronizing the behavior of a larger society living together, allowing mutually beneficial cooperative behavior. Indeed, mimicry has been shown to increase cooperative behavior. However, synchronising the behavior of small vs. a large population can be a different game altogether. The authors also found that smaller groups have higher norm internalisation, whereas the larger groups, biological fitness is higher if they do not evolve internalisation. This could be due to the fact that larger groups require more cost for the individuals to monitor and punish the free-riders, which is an integral part of norm internalisation.

 

Where do we stand?

Every day, we make decisions on how to respond to different social situations and norms are one such factor which influences our decision. These models can help predict human behavior and decision making. Additionally, also provide ways to optimise them. For e.g., going back to our initial example of a violation of the Mertonian norm. Could enforcing stronger backlash for scientific misconduct prove to more effective in enforcing this norm, rather than promoting the idea of altruism and benefit of scientific enterprise?

Studies like these will navigate us one step closer towards answering such questions.

References:

  1. Gavrilets, S. & Richerson, P. J. Collective action and the evolution of social norm internalization. 1–6 (2017). doi:10.1073/pnas.1703857114
  2. Chudek, M. & Henrich, J. psychology and the emergence of human prosociality. Trends Cogn. Sci. 15, 218–226 (2011).
  3. Henrich-and-Ensminger-Ch.2-2014.pdf.
  4. Hardecker, S. & Tomasello, M. From imitation to implementation : How two- and three-year-old children learn to enforce social norms. 1–12 (2016). doi:10.1111/bjdp.12159

 

About the Author

P Surat Saravanan completed her Ph.D. from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. She spent her graduate school years looking down through microscopes in dark rooms, staring at confocal images for hours, and praying to Drosophila Gods to make them lay more eggs – in the hope of trying to understand what makes a cell behave the way it does. Currently, she is a freelance science editor and writer. Apart from science writing, she is also passionate about cubist art.

 

 

Editor: Rituparna Chakrabarti, PhD and Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

Cover Image: Pixabay

Featured Video: YouTube

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

Stop poisoning yourself with beauty!

in That Makes Sense by

Men and women have used cosmetics since 10,000 BC, for health, hygiene and aesthetic reasons. Although the types and styles of cosmetics have undergone intense changes over time, it has always been a part of our culture. FDA defines cosmetics as “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body…for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance” [FD&C Act, sec. 201(i)]. In recent times, with changing social dynamics and thanks to social media, we judge people based on their appearance more than ever. The huge boom in the global cosmetic market, which is estimated to reach $675 billion by 2020, is a testament of this fact. According to a survey, women use 16 products every day on an average in the US, which contain hundreds of different chemicals, some of which are extremely hazardous.

Since the cosmetic industry is not as highly regulated as the food or drug industry, these products don’t need to be approved by the FDA before being marketed, unless they use color additives and/or any of the banned chemicals. Consequently, the onus is onto us to educate ourselves on the risk of chemical toxicity and possible health hazards of using different cosmetics and make an informed decision.

Commonly used murky chemicals and possible risks attached

  1. Phthalates: Apart from being used in packaging, household products and pharmaceuticals, phthalates are widely used in makeup and cosmetics like shampoo, soap, hair spray, nail polish, perfumes, lotions etc. in the form of dibutyl, dimethyl or diethyl phthalate. The latter work as a plasticizer, making the products such as nail polish or hair spray less brittle or more flexible.

Although risk of potential health problem due to low level of phthalate exposure in humans are still under investigation, some phthalates like di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate are believed to be human carcinogens. Di-n-butyl phthalate, for example, when consumed in high amounts show an adverse effect on animal reproduction in the laboratory.

  1. Parabens: Various parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl and butyl paraben) are most commonly used in cosmetics as preservative to protect them against microorganisms, thus prolonging shelf life. We can easily find parabens in shaving creams, makeup, hair gel, deodorant, moisturizing creams. At present, FDA gives a clean chit to parabens, but some studies have raised concerns. Paraben being biologically active, can mimic estrogen and androgen. It can inhibit the sulfotransferase enzyme, hence increasing chances of breast cancer as well as affecting male reproductive functions.
  1. Dioxane: Though dioxane is not added to cosmetics intentionally for any purpose, it’s a byproduct of foaming agents, emulsifiers or some solvents, and could be present as a contaminant.

Limited data available show that 1,4-dioxane targets liver and kidneys. Long-term exposures to high doses of dioxane through drinking water, showed elevated chance of liver tumors in rats. Exposure to dioxane has also been related to fatal hemorrhage in kidney and lesions. Unlike phthalates and parabens, FDA does monitor the levels of 1,4-dioxane in personal care products.

  1. Coal tar: Initially, coal tar was introduced by the cosmetic industry in the form of permanent hair dyes. Color additives used in hair dyes nowadays are derived from petroleum. As the colors derived from both petroleum and coal tar can be chemically identical, all of these colors fall under the category of “coal tar dyes”.

Coal tar has been proven to be carcinogenic. Increased risk of bladder cancer has been found in women who frequently dyed their hair. Occupational exposure to coal tar dyes in case of hairstylist, barbers, beauticians also pose risk of a higher incidence of cancer.

Although most color additives need FDA approval, coal tar dye is somehow an exception. If a product label shows a special caution statement about allergic reaction and other possible harmful side effects, and includes an instruction about proper usage of the product, FDA cannot use its authority to take action against a coal-tar hair dye!

  1. Hydroquinone: Skin bleaching has always been a part of some cultures, mostly in Asia, which leads to the risks of exposure to hydroquinone, an ingredient for skin lightening. Hydroquinone reduces production of melanin causing the skin to fade. It is commonly used to treat hyperpigmentation due to sun exposure, acne marks and age spots.

Exposure to higher level of hydroquinone has some acute effects like skin irritation, eye injury, headache, dyspnea, convulsion, nausea, edema of organs etc. Though the EPA has not identified hydroquinone as a carcinogen, studies done on female mice have shown carcinogenic activity via escalation of hepatocellular neoplasms and risk of skin tumors.

  1. Formaldehyde: This is a well-known preservative. FDA identifies formaldehyde as a skin allergen and irritant. It has also been linked to nose and lung cancer. Various cosmetic companies nowadays don’t use formaldehyde directly in their products, instead formaldehyde releasing chemicals like DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal, quaternium-15, methenamine, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate and diazolidinyl urea are used
  1. Lead: This heavy metal has found its way into makeup (as eye makeup and lead white) since the time of ancient Egyptians, and the modern time is no different. A recent study showed that about 400 lipsticks including popular brands contain lead. Although the amount of lead in any given product might be around the acceptable limit, the major concern is that lead levels can build up in our body and cause damage to brain, nervous system and kidneys. Pregnant women have increased risk of miscarriage, malformations, stillbirth and premature delivery with low birthweight, when exposed to high level of lead.
  1. Nanoparticles (NPs) of TiO2 and ZnO: In recent times, the use of TiO2 and ZnO NPs have increased quite a lot. Nanoparticles are used in sunscreen as they protect skin from UVA and UVB radiations without affecting endocrine system like other UV reflecting chemicals. Also use of NPs makes the products aesthetically more pleasing assuring smooth application without the ashy trace of most sunscreen, making it perfect to be termed as “revolutionary” by the cosmetic industry.

Many studies have shown cytotoxic effects of TiO2 NP. Though TiO2 is chemically inert, nano-sized TiO2 has been linked with oxidative stress, DNA strand breakage and chromosomal damage.

  1. Fragrance: According to FDA, fragrance and flavor ingredients can be listed simply as “fragrance” or “flavor” – therefore cosmetic companies do not need to reveal the actual chemical composition of the “Fragrance”. This is where it gets tricky – a lot of chemicals that are included in this concoction of fragrance are skin allergens, irritants, have hormonal and reproductive toxicity and are carcinogens.

Look fabulous, but be safe

Lack of studies on long term effects of various chemicals used in cosmetics is a major concern. Also, the market is highly unregulated and rules behind the use of certain chemicals vary across countries, because of which, composition of a particular product made by a certain company may get altered in different countries. As we don’t know a lot about all the harmful ingredients and their effects just yet, the only approach we may have is to be “safe than sorry”.  While getting rid of all grooming products and going back to primitive ways might be a little cynical, when studies show that cosmetics most certainly can cause hormonal disbalance in teenage girls, it definitely demands our attention as consumers. The best we can do, is to read product labels, become knowledgeable about the ingredients, keep companies and government accountable and probably switch to more natural options.


About Sanchita:

Sanchita completed her PhD from Jadavpur University (Kolkata, India) in Chemistry, followed by a Postdoctoral position at University of Texas at El Paso. Currently she is freelancing in technology scouting and market research and aims to transition into a position where her transferable skills would be put to use. Apart from science she enjoys travelling, writing and reading a lot!

 

Editor: Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Here and There

in That Makes Sense by

 

There was a smile on my face and a song in my heart.

 

It was my first trip to India after eight months in the US, the longest time I had ever been away from home, from my country. The earthy scent of rain greeted me as soon as I stepped out of the Bangalore airport, bringing with it a wave of nostalgia. The honking of vehicles and shouts of street vendors was like music to the ears. Even the large ugly billboards lining the roads on either side seemed endearing. I was excited to be back, living in the moment, feeling every breath, collecting beautiful memories with friends and family that would last forever.

 

However, there were times when I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the strikingly different lifestyles that I led here in India and there in the US. These weren’t comparisons but mere astonishment at how one could simultaneously relate to such widely different ways of life.

 

Here I was, squatting on the ground, having delicious home-made tambuli and chutney out of a plantain leaf. Could it be any more distinct from the deep dish cheese pizzas and enchiladas that I relished there? Here I was, lying on a hand woven jute charpai cot, watching the coconut trees sway in the wind, the moon playing with the clouds and the stars of the majestic constellation of Scorpio rising in the sky. Could it be any more distinct from the comfort of the memory foam mattress and glow in the dark stars glittering on the ceiling of my bedroom there? Here I was, buying lime peppermints from a small departmental store that seemed to have everything from groceries to medicines to cosmetics packed compactly in a modestly sized room. Could it be any more distinct from the aisles and aisles of commodities that I could choose from in the palatial outlets of Walmart and Target? Here I was, basking in the brusque affection and hospitality of neighbours and friends. Could it be any more distinct from the refined goodwill and courteousness of people there?

 

Sometimes these differences stuck me so hard that I was momentarily lost, unable to define my own identity, my self-image becoming a hazy blur in the distance. Who was I? How could I switch back and forth from being a small town girl in the interior of Karnataka to an uptown girl of California? Was I like the chameleon, which adapted and became one with its surroundings in the blink of an eye? The example somehow seemed inadequate. As I scoured my brain for a better analogue, I remembered the herrings and the salmons. Maybe I was more like the fish which migrated downstream to regions of abundant resources but was ultimately drawn to home odors upstream, to the place where it was born, to the place where its life began. Before I knew, the flight landed in San Francisco and I remembered how eager I was to get back to my research.

 

There was a smile on my face and a spring in my step.

 

About the author:

Shwetha completed her PhD from the Indian Institute of Science and is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford university. She is considering a career in the biotech industry but is irreversibly drawn towards the charm of academia. Amidst all the confusion she is trying to articulate her feelings and experiences in a new country through writing.

Featured image: Vinita Bharat

The geeky way to lose or gain weight

in That Makes Sense by

Editor’s note: To actively lose or gain weight has always been decisive – whether for health/fashion reasons or both. Although we do aim to tilt the scale in our favor, there’s basic mathematics hidden behind how much weight can we lose or gain. And interestingly, that depends a lot on our diet, gender, height, weight and age. Club SciWri intern Sanchita Chakrabarty scripts the hidden basics of weight transformation in this article. If you want to be a part of the Club SciWri internship experience, please drop an email at sayantan.ch@sciwri.club.

 

There has been an increase in incidence of obesity in populations mostly spanning the urban setting of highly developed industrialized countries to developing countries due to a deskbound lifestyle and additional factors.  With recent studies connecting obesity to a variety of high risk diseases like diabetes, sleep apnea, cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and even cancer, it is high time that we became knowledgeable about this topic for our own good. As is in most parts, obesity is related to food habits as well as a sedentary lifestyle. Therefore, understanding the biochemistry and physiological processes of calorie uptake, energy release during bodily functions and different types of exercise ought to be helpful.

The simple math of calorie

A calorie is the unit to measure energy released by food when digested by human body. The body metabolizes the molecules that constitute our diet and converts the resulting calorie into usable energy. Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR is the rate of energy expenditure per unit time, necessary for normal bodily functions including maintaining heart rate, body temperature, respiratory functions, metabolic processes, making new blood cells etc. Resting energy expenditure or REE corresponds to the total amount of caloric requirement in a 24-hour period by the body in a sedentary state. REE and BMR can be calculated using the Harris-Benedict equation, which takes into account gender, age, height, and body weight of the subject and is derived from an indirect calorimetric method. To maintain basic bodily functions and retention of body weight, it is very important to eat healthy food of optimalcaloric value.

Harris-Benedict formula for BMR calculation

 men BMR = 66 + (6.2 × weight in pounds) + (12.7 × height in inches) – (6.776 × age in years)
women BMR = 655.1 + (4.35 × weight in pounds) + (4.7 × height in inches) – (4.7 × age in years)

 

Harris-Benedict formula for daily calorie intake according to activity level

Sedentary BMR × 1.2
Light exercise BMR × 1.375
Moderately active BMR × 1.55
Highly active BMR ×1.725
Heavy exercise BMR ×1.9

 

Example: If a man is 35 years of age, 6′ tall (72 inches) and weighs 163 pounds (74 kg), then his BMR = 66 + (6.2 × 163) + (12.7 × 72) – (6.776 × 35) = 1753.84 calories/day. Now, if the person lives a sedentary life, he would have to consume BMR × 1.2 = 2104.6 calories in a day to maintain his body weight. To lose or gain weight one has to decrease or increase caloric intake and/or activity level.

As 1 lb of fat corresponds to 3500 calories, there has to be a deficit of 3500 calories to lose weight by 1 lb. Hence, according to the above example, if the man wants to set his weight at 160 lbs (a 3 lb reduction in weight) and starts consuming 1604.6 calories instead of 2104.6 calories (i.e. 500 calories less) in a day, then it would take (3 × 3500)/500 = 21 days or 3 weeks to achieve the targeted weight by maintaining a sedentary lifestyle. Although it is possible to gain or lose weight by altering caloric intake, physical activity is always advisable for good health.

Fat metabolism during exercise

Fat is stored as triglyceride in adipose tissues. Triglyceride consists of three fatty acids attached to a molecule of glycerol. Droplets of triglyceride remain stored in muscle fibers in close proximity of the oxidation sites in muscle mitochondria. During exercise, the enzyme hormone sensitive lipase gets stimulated and dissolves the lipid into three molecules of free fatty acid (FFA) and glycerol, the latter being water soluble diffuses into blood. An increase in plasma concentration of epinephrine that activates betareceptors in adepocytes is thought to be the reason of stimulation of adipose tissue lipolysis. Plasma FFA is the exclusive fat source and fuel during low-intensity exercise. On the other hand, during a high intensity work-out, pools of intramuscular triglyceride are utilized as an additional source of fat. In case of low-intensity cardio exercise, the heart rate of an average person increases up to 60-70% of maximum heart rate within 2-5 minutes. Fat starts to burn if this heart rate is maintained. At this stage, 50% of the total burned calorie comes from fat and if the same intensity level is maintained for 20 minutes, 70-80% calorie comes from fat and the rest from carbohydrate. This is referred to as the “Fat burning zone”. For a high-intensity cardio work-out, mostly referred to as endurance training, heart rate reaches between 70-85% of maximum heart rate and one burns more fat in less time.

Eating at the right time

Studies have confirmed that along with what we eat, when we eat is also important. Superchiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is a small region within the anterior hypothalamus controls the mammalian circadian rhythm. SCN can synchronize with peripheral tissues and influences the sleep-wake cycle in rhythm with the usual light and dark cycle in a day. SCN also regulates certain behaviors like feeding. Apart from the temporal circadian clock, some peripheral tissues like liver tissues also demonstrate circadian rhythm with the help of cyclically expressed genes. Imbalanced circadian clock has been linked to obesity and type-2 diabetes. Researchers have shown that a change in the circadian timing of feeding results in weight gain in mice. The hormone melatonin plays a major role in regulation of the mammalian circadian clock. Melatonin is very important for proper secretion and action of insulin. Short sleep durations affect melatonin function in turn worsening insulin sensitivity. Recent studies have shown that sleep deprivation is linked to increased brain activity and intake of high calorie food as well as increased desire of binge eating. All of these are directly or indirectly linked to obesity. In general, the rule of having a meal within one hour after waking up and an early dinner still stands true. Also, an early lunch following a good breakfast helps reducing blood sugar level in the afternoon.

Although a cliché, reminding ourselves to eat at the proper time, watch our caloric intake and understand the value of some amount of exercise could be the start of a fight against obesity and its related diseases.


About Sanchita:

Sanchita completed her PhD from Jadavpur University (Kolkata, India) in Chemistry, followed by a Postdoctoral position at University of Texas at El Paso. Currently she is freelancing in technology scouting and market research and aims to transition into a position where her transferable skills would be put to use. Apart from science she enjoys travelling, writing and reading a lot!

 

Editor: Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Depression in Science

in That Makes Sense by

via GIPHY

I was wondering for quite some time as to how I should start this article. The only way I could start talking about depression in science is being direct about it. Let’s face it- sometimes depression does creep into some of us who are doing science. I am writing this article to share my personal opinion about this immensely important aspect of research that not many dare to talk about. I will try and make it light and humorous without digressing from the topic.

I don’t know you (the person reading this). I don’t know if you are a PhD student or a post-doc or a faculty member or even a younger researcher. I don’t know if you have ever dislodged Mount Everest and put it on your head because a stupid experiment failed or could not be repeated. Don’t tell anyone…but I have! I also don’t know if you have let your personal life affect your research. If you have…you are outright stupid! Alright…so have I! So did all of this get entangled in a cornucopia of “my-life-is-a-hell” and put a thought of “let’s-fucking-end-it” into your head? If it have…welcome to the club of over thinkers. Also, let me welcome you guys to the club of “people-who-can-change-the-world”.

Let’s analyze this psyche a bit! Mind you the only psyche I’m close to is “psychedelic rock”. Bad joke right? (Oh I suck!) All those who think this might end up eating up your precious time…you’re right! This will eat up your time…quit right away! You are an average mind! All this is meant for people with deeper intellect and deeper feelings, who can’t handle themselves.

Anyway, now that we are a little less in number let’s continue with the analysis. So what is the reason for your anxiety?

  1.  A failed experiment?
  2. You had earth-shattering results which have suddenly given up on you and will not repeat themselves.
  3. You don’t know which direction to take your research into.
  4. Your supervisor is giving you a hard time
  5. You had a break-up and cannot focus on work.
  6. You feel lonely and nobody understands you.
  7. You just feel depressed for no apparent reason.

I will give you my perspective on how to overcome all this. And if you are wondering who-the-fuck-am-I to give you all this overdose of advice…I am one of those who have experienced a little bit of all of the above. And no I’m not writing to you from afterlife…I am currently pursuing research at Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces (Potsdam, Germany)

  1. A failed experiment. If an experiment has failed…let me put it straight to you…YOU HAVE TO REPEAT IT. Why? Only if you repeat it twice more would you really understand that yes it has failed. Before that…there’s no point of being depressed! Let’s come to the second part “IT HAS REALLY FAILED”. This is the time you start blaming others like the chemicals you ordered from Sigma Aldrich wasn’t fine, the incubator or the reaction vessel or any other instrument wasn’t working fine. Then? YOU HAVE NO REASON TO BLAME YOURSELF FOR IT. Now let’s consider that you had taken care of that. Then, it means that your hypothesis was wrong. Who do you blame for it? YOUR SUPERVISOR (whoever it is…a PhD student, a postdoc or a senior scientist). If he/she has not been able to foresee it, IT’S THEIR FAULT. If they have not had time to look into it or if they are too busy or if they have a wall separating you and them. IT IS STILL THEIR FAULT! YOU…as absurd as it may sound…ARE NOT AT FAULT! If you have made a mistake during the experiment. It’s not a fault really…it’s just experience! YOU WILL GET OVER THIS!
  2. You had earth-shattering results which have suddenly given up on you and will not repeat themselves. It goes in the same direction as point number one. Mostly! If you cannot repeat it, it means…it’s not a fact! Well not always! You were perfectly sure that you had done everything right and it gave the right results. Then? Well…write down everything you did…from where you have taken the Milli-Q water to which instrument you have used and what you have used. If you have not checked all of that, you should learn to do it! That’s all. And still if it doesn’t repeat itself! IT WAS NOT AN EARTH SHATTERING RESULT. More importantly, RESEARCH IS NOT ABOUT EARTH SHATTERING RESULTS! It’s about learning, accumulating, understanding and presenting data scientifically and articulately.
  3. You still don’t know which direction to take your research into. If you are a young scientist, this is not your job. It is your supervisor’s job. If you can’t talk about it with your supervisor and he/she doesn’t give a damn…CHANGE YOUR SUPERVISOR! HE/SHE IS AT FAULT! NOT YOU! If you are a postdoc, give yourself time, postdoc is the last time you can really try something new all by yourself and nothing new comes easy in this world. Nobody knows it as much as you do…remember your battles during PhD? Remember how you resurrected yourself as the DARK KNIGHT? You are the hero that you need…not the one that you deserve. If you are a new PI…let’s face it…you either try it once more…or look for something you can do better. It’s not the end of the road. Look up the age at which Colonel Sanders created KFC!
  4. Your supervisor is giving you a hard time. There can be two reasons for it. One. You haven’t been competent. If that is the case, you just need to take a break. By a break I mean, forgetting research and all your troubles for a week (at least). Go for a trip. Sky dive! Dive into the depth of the ocean. Learn a new instrument/language. Make new friends. Go clubbing. Go to the concentration camps around the world and see how little your problem is. But when you get back to work just remember not to repeat the same mistakes. Do everything with care and properly. Record everything! Two. Your supervisor is not a good person and even worse…a horrible supervisor. HE/SHE DOESN’T DESERVE YOU! They are at fault if they can’t distinguish between Gold and Fool’s gold…forget about diamonds! Just change your supervisor. He/she doesn’t have the right to dictate your life. You will not allow it either.
  5. You had a break-up and cannot focus on work. This one is a little difficult. But there’s always someone you can go back to. Your friends…tell them how you feel. Your parents…open up to them…tell them how you feel. Most of them will understand. Watch movies. Go shopping. Do all the things that you wanted to. Right now you are important. In fact you are the most important. Nothing else is. Pamper yourself in every possible way you can. However, do not shy away from work. Show yourself up at work every day. Work mechanically. But do it! If things don’t work out (they might not) still do them. Spend all the time that you can in the lab if you don’t have anything fun planned. Eat well and get fat…or start looking at your physique…go for a run…swim…just keep your mind engaged. One day you will realize that the person was sent to your life to teach you to be better…to teach you to live better…to teach you to get back to people you were ignoring. Life is really more than that! Cheer up…try it! 🙂
  6. You feel lonely and nobody understands you. Pack your bags and go out for a solo trip immediately. You will find so many people…just like you. Share your feelings with a random person…someone who doesn’t know you. They will listen to you and give you the best advice. If you don’t like travelling…join a new course-language, sports, gym, dance, singing- anything that you like. There are millions of others like you and you are not one of them. There are millions of others doing science just like you. Ok…not millions…thousands…or may be hundreds…but you will find people who will understand you. You just have to take yourself out and give yourself a chance to meet them.
  7. You just feel depressed for no apparent reason. For you my friend, all of the above might mean something or nothing. If that is the case, just do all of the above specially, points 5 and 6. If you still find yourself depressed…you should see a friend. Sometimes a shrink can be your friend too but before that…you should see a real friend who cares about you and doesn’t charge money. 🙂

I don’t know if this was helpful at all but depression is not the way to be. It’s not something you should ignore. If you think you are about to be depressed then you should do everything you can to get away from it. If you have nothing better to do…you can reach this weirdo at the contact given along with this article. Cheers! Hic! Cheeeers!

Infographically speaking…..

Depression & Stress Resilience

 

From Visually.

 

Featured image: Based on suggestions from Ipsa Jain and made by Francisco de Goya, El Gigante or El Coloso (1814-1818), a loose print on paper cast in polished aquatint from Wikimedia Commons

Edited by: Neha Bhutani

About the Author

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Chandradhish is a medicinal chemist by profession, a poet by heart and a footballer by feet. Pursuing researchMax Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces, CD (as he is fondly known) also indulges in literature, movies and music. Quintessentially Bong, he eats everything ranging from water to alcohol to cigarettes to biriyani, so when he is not eating, footballing, day-dreaming, CD is free to discuss all of this and of course his science at chandradhish@gmail.com

Blog design: Abhinav Dey

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Disclaimer:The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of PhD Career Support Group or ClubSciWri. This blog is strictly for news and information. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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